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WHAT: Three men debate the artistic merits of a painting.

WHEN: 7 p.m. Tuesday; 7:30 p.m. Wednesday; 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday; 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday. Through Nov. 17

WHERE: Studio Arena Theatre, 710 Main St.

ADMISSION: $25-$45

INFO: 856-8025

People who like a fight will love "Art," the play that opens this weekend at Studio Arena Theatre.

"Art" could be called "Three Men and a Painting." Three middle-aged buddies carry on a quarrel over a painting that looks just like a plain white rectangle. It's a three-way, hour-and-a-half bicker, without intermission.

The gist is this: Serge paid a lot of money for the painting. Marc calls it nonsense. And Yvon, the third member of this trio, just wants to keep the peace.

What begins as an argument over the painting escalates to an argument over all kinds of other things, making the three men wonder comically if their friendship is at an end. And at times "Art" resembles more a performance piece than a play. In one instance, the characters come forward, one by one, and address the audience.

The acting in "Art" is exquisite. Peter Van Wagner, who plays Serge, projects a wide-eyed humor as he defends his blank painting. John Curless pours his heart into the part of the terminally stressed Yvon. And as the pragmatic, dyspeptic Marc, Roger Forbes displays great comic timing. "Art" was a big hit on Broadway just a few years ago, and Studio Arena does a fine job with this celebrated play. But it isn't my cup of tea. It seems to me that like the painting at its core, "Art" doesn't have enough substance.

The play revels in repetition, as if playwright Yasmina Reza was having trouble filling the time. "Your wife has a terrible habit of waving away cigarette smoke." "Don't tell me you're annoyed by the way she waves away cigarette smoke." "Well, she does have that annoying habit of waving away cigarette smoke." Etc.

A basic problem that lies with the play and not this production is that the characters aren't intriguing enough, or likable enough. After a while, I had had enough of these three unattractive personalities sitting around arguing on this dull set (beige couch, pair of chairs, ugly coffee table).

Considering that it was written by a woman, it's funny that "Art" needs a woman's touch. A woman on stage might have jazzed things up.

At the end, "Art" has a few fine moments. But getting there isn't much fun.

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